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Child-proofing the Internet with access restriction software

Mike asks: "What are the best options for monitoring children's computer use and blocking adult content?"

In the old days, it was easier to visit forbidden sites: The secret was to stay up later than your parents. (This strategy is only theory, of course.) Now, it's far more difficult because most Internet service providers offer some version of “parental controls”. If those aren't enough, there are mountains of third-party software programs.

If you want to be able to monitor or block your child's online activity, first be able to answer the following: What do you want to target? Possibilities include website browsing habits, email, and chat programs. Next, what are you watching for? Do you want to monitor visited websites and chat sessions, stop access to adult-only websites, or just limit time spent online?

Next, go to your Internet Provider and look for “parental controls”. Big players like AOL, Comcast Cable and SBC DSL all have varying levels of monitoring and blocking available. See if they suit your needs. Try these first, as ISP parental controls are usually free.

For more options, visit http://kids.getnetwise.org/tools. Scroll down to the “Find Tools for Your Family” section. The search tool can give you a list of monitoring and blocking software that addresses your specific needs. Look for software with a free trial period. Install it and see if it works for you. If it does, send the company money. If not, uninstall and try a different one.

To illustrate, we'll use Net Nanny (http://netnanny.com). With a 15-day free trial, you have plenty of time to test before deciding to pay $40. Features include Internet time limitations, family-friendly website searching, and blocking access to inappropriate games, file sharing and chat programs. Tell Net Nanny to only allow access to specific websites, or block access to predefined subjects like adult websites or vulgar language. Multiple people can be given different levels of permission. You can generate reports of all activity or just when someone “breaks the rules”, and have these be immediately viewable or sent via email.

Parental control software is excellent for stopping accidental exposure to Bad Things. But what about someone determined to compromise security, like a newspaper technology columnist with extra time on a Saturday night? I was able to circumvent blocking software, and not just Net Nanny. If parental control software is installed on your PC or even managed by your ISP, there are limitations that can be exploited by those very comfortable with computers. The moral is that while blocking and monitoring is possible, it's not 100% effective.

Software, no matter how well-meaning, is not a replacement for parental protection and supervision. Decide for yourself how much you want a third party managing the relationship with your children. Read http://kids.getnetwise.org, as it promotes more than the importance of software. For monitoring older, computer-savvy types, communication and a shared understanding is more important.